Television

"Government's legal stand on CAS is very clear" : Ravi Shankar Prasad I&B minister

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These days information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad does not look uncertain as he did some months back when he was allocated the I&B ministry portfolio that, in political circles, is considered a graveyard for the best of ministers. Even Sushma Swaraj, considered a strong woman within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, could not survive here long despite her stranglehold and `achievements.'

But there is a newfound aggressiveness that Prasad is flaunting these days, which is sending out just one message: he and the government mean business. As he thundered to a question on opposition to his pet subject at the moment, CAS, "I would not get cowed down. I cannot be cowed down." It is another thing that this lawyer-turned-politician is also drawing power from the backing that he has got from the Prime Minister and the deputy Prime Minister. His critics, of course, describe his zeal for CAS a result of being cautioned by the Prime Minister to ensure that the electorates are not alienated in the government's bid to bring in some change. There is no denying that political pressure has mounted and Prasad has to see the rough edges in CAS are smoothened out, and quickly, before the bushfire of criticism spreads.

In this interview with indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Prasad gamely takes on questions, mostly on CAS, even as he says that his wife keeps on advising him that in this world there are other things too, besides CAS. Excerpts from an interview given recently after Prasad, along with some high-ranking officials from his ministry, returned from a tour of Thailand and the UK where he also spent time at the BBC office and visited BSkyB's facility.

How confident are you of a successful CAS rollout?

I am very confident that the government would successfully be able to stick to its mandated 14 July deadline for rollout.

But some people are saying that a regulatory body should be in place first before CAS is rolled out. What are your views on this?

I am not against a regulator per se. But things have to come in place first before a regulator can come into existence. That is what the government is trying to do.

But those who say that a regulator should be in place before implementation of CAS, which is a consumer-friendly initiative, are out to frustrate CAS' rollout. It is one of the desperate attempts by motivated people and such logic would not influence me. Nobody can browbeat me and I'll not get cowed down.

Moreover, a content bureau has been envisaged in the over-arching Communication Convergence Bill, pending Parliament's clearance. For a regulator, discussions at various levels, including political, have to take place before a mechanism of that sort is put in place.

But is it only because of the consumer that you are insistent on CAS? Apart from the critics of CAS, people also say the government too, has an agenda.

Now, that's a new one that I am hearing. What can be the government's agenda? The government's agenda is to implement initiatives that are people-friendly. CAS is in the interest of the nation, consumer and the market. If the television economy has to grow at the rate of 17 per cent, then the whole system has to be made transparent and the government is just trying to do that.

I know my responsibility and foremost is consumers' interest. All these talks that are abounding in the media are sinister moves of vested interests.

"I am very confident that the government would successfully be able to stick to its mandated 14 July deadline for rollout."

The question is why does the government have to step in to safeguard consumers' interests, especially where television viewing is concerned? In other sectors, market forces have taken care of such things? Why did the government have to mandate CAS, which anyway was an inevitability sooner or later?

The government never intended to intervene in the first place. Let me tell you, it was initially thought, as you are pointing out, that the players themselves would address the problem of addressability. But that did not happen. The cable operators fought with the broadcasters and the latter accused the cable operators of under-reporting. All this while the consumer was suffering from arbitrary hikes in cable TV viewing fees. This fight in urban areas was so intense that the government had no option, but to step in to lessen consumer suffering, which is what CAS aims to do.

I have been supplied a list by the industry now that shows that in the basic tier of free to air channels there are 10 news channels, 18 entertainment channels, five movie channels and almost all the regional channels. A little application will benefit a large section of the society.

Do you think that it's the big broadcasters that are opposing, or have been attempting to stall, implementation of CAS?

I would not like to name individuals, but I'd like to be fair to all. I'd also like to appeal to all the stakeholders of the industry to come together and join forces with the government to make CAS a success. It's in the interest of all.

I have also made similar requests to broadcasters and let me tell all that the government is equally aware of its powers in law. The deadline for broadcasters to come out with the pricing of individual channels remains 15 June.

Since the government has taken on the role of an arbiter, what else, apart from mandating policies, is it doing to ensure a smooth rollout of CAS? Is it importing the set top boxes?

It's not the government's duty to import boxes as the government is not providing the service. People who are providing the service, that is the cable operators, will do the imports.

It is in the interest of MSOs and the cable operators to get the boxes and they have assured me that by 15 July about 2.7 million boxes would be in the market for the consumer. I'll have to trust them. Because unless the cable operators provide a good service to the consumers, the cable industry would not grow.





"Nobody can browbeat me and I'll not get cowed down."
But broadcasters either control some major MSOs or have sizeable interests in ground distribution. CAS may just go on to make them more powerful. Is there any move to introduce a cross-service restriction to see broadcasters don't have sizeable interest in ground distribution?

At the moment, there are no such moves. Once CAS comes into force, I am open to all such suggestions that may make the rules more consumer friendly.
"We have also been told that initially about 25 per cent of the subscribers in the metros may opt for the STBs."

When do you think the second phase of CAS rollout would happen, if at all it happens before the tenure of this government runs out sometime next year?

We are concentrating on the first phase of implementation at the moment. By the time the full rollout happens in the first phase satisfactorily, we'd also have learnt from the experience. And that would come handy during the second phase implementation. But if you ask me to give a time frame for the second phase now, I would not be able to do so.

Even if the MSOs, as reiterated by them, get in about 2.7 million boxes into the country, there would be a large number of cable households in the metros, estimated to be 6.4 million, that would have to do without their favourite soaps and programmes most of which are primarily on pay channels. There would be chaos and anger against the government move. Your views on this.

I agree that on Day One of CAS rollout everybody may not go in for a box. And rightly so because that's a typical Indian mentality to wait and gauge the reaction to a new thing. We have also been told that initially about 25 per cent of the subscribers in the metros may opt for the STBs. Later the others will follow slowly. To me that looks good enough because that will give the industry too, time to understand the situation better.

Most of the boxes are being imported, a trend that cannot continue for long as the tax sops introduced on imports of boxes is for a limited period of time. What has happened to the so-called domestic manufacturers who were crying hoarse they see an opportunity here?

Good question. All those people are playing the wait and watch game. The Indian experience is that entrepreneurs watch the market for some time before embarking on local production. Their argument would be `maal bikega ya nahin' (would the product sell or not). Once the Indian entrepreneurs are sure of the market of a product, they'll join the race. It happened with manufacturing of TV sets too. Earlier, TV sets used to be assembled here, but now domestic and foreign manufactures actually produce TV sets in the country.

By extending duty relaxation on imports of STBs, we are trying to ensure everybody that boxes have a future in the Indian market. But Indian enterpreneurship should be, and would be, given a fair chance to prove its mettle.

"I see the boxes meant for CAS to be precursor to newer technologies in India like DTH. It would also pave the way for a true convergence era when there would be a super regulator for the sectors of IT, broadcasting and telecom."

What is final gain that government sees emerging from CAS rollout?

I see the boxes meant for CAS to be precursor to newer technologies in India like DTH. It would also pave the way for a true convergence era when there would be a super regulator for the sectors of IT, broadcasting and telecom. CAS would also help in establishing India as the regional hub for entertainment as newer products come into the country.

You seem so bullish on CAS. What if somebody goes to the courts and gets a stay on CAS implementation?

This is a democratic country and I or the government cannot stop anybody from appealing to the court. But let me assure you that the government's legal stand on this is very clear and the courts would be made aware of that. I also assure you that the best legal strategy and best legal brains of the country would be made available to defend the government stand.

By allowing FTV to have a dual feed (a diluted version in the FTA mode, while the real, hot FTV in the pay mode is through CAS) is the government paving the way for adult fare on television through CAS?

Who has said that FTV has been allowed to have a dual feed. When I was in France recently, I told the head of FTV that the issue of Indian sensibility has to be kept in mind. I was also assured of this. Maybe, over a period of time a system gradually evolves for what you are referring to as adult fare. But at the moment, there are no such moves within the government.

When is the government going in for the much-talked about second round of privatisation of FM radio?

Before doing that I want to have a clean slate. There are quite a few problems and concerns in that sector, most of which have been created by the private players themselves who bid very high during the first round of licences issued. They were very well aware of the ground realities,

I propose to set up a task force very shortly to make it pro-reforms so that the radio revolution actually happens.



Do you propose to go in for revenue sharing instead of licence fee as has been done in the telecom sector?

There is a justification in going for a revenue sharing model, but at the moment I would not like to spell out the details. I'd prefer the task force, which would comprise industry representatives too, to thrash out the issues relating to radio.



Zee Telefilms, which wants to start a business news channel, ZeeBiz, is yet to get a clearance from the ministry despite having filed an application some two months back. Is there some problem in Zee's application?

I haven't yet seen the relevant file so cannot answer the question. I am sure, Zee's application would take its normal course of various stages of clearances.

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